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Aspirational India? Raj Nandy

March 2, 2013

Guest post by RAJ NANDY

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Image of homeless children from For Donald

Mainstream media recently carried stories about Prema Jayakumar, daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver who topped the Chartered Accountancy exam, and of several other young men and women who have made the journey from village to city, overcoming ‘poverty, social discrimination and even political strife to succeed in life‘ and are now set to step into elite professions.

The same story linked to above, suggested that Prema-type examples also show that “this tale of personal courage and excellence is embedded in the ethos of aspirational India” and that the “idea of aspiration has proved to be one of the most binding factors in the country”.

I disagree. To glorify and salute such examples of exceptional hard work and determination is, of course, apt and well deserved. However, to present a tiny fraction – say, a few hundreds or thousands as reflecting the temper or character of millions muddling through crippling poverty and malnutrition seems like mistaking the shadow for the substance. The ground reality both in urban and rural India (where a majority of our people live) is far too complex and messy to infer a stirring or an ‘aspiring India’ on the basis of individual standout illustrations.

Two vital components that go to build up or piece together “aspiration” are ‘a dream’ and ‘human effort’ to chase it. In order to work up these two in the body, one needs energy that comes only from food. The retold story about the economy of India (or its ‘growth’ we occasionally brag about) is that it is so full of inconsistencies and uncertainties in the distribution of wealth in an equitable manner that it is well-nigh impossible for the really poor to access that kind of food and education that is the foundation of ‘human effort’. The few examples the media has picked out and held up as representative of ‘aspirational India’ at best illustrate the extremely small segment of any society at any time who possess the unremitting tenacity and perseverance to stretch their bodies and minds to their limits to achieve their goals – notwithstanding multiple hardships and everyday setbacks.

It appears to me that the media while reaching these such conclusions lost sight of the globally-acknowledged fact, that of 36 countries that account for 96 per cent of the world’s most malnourished children, India was right at the bottom. India also has the dubious distinction of having some 35 per cent of these children  as stunted, both physically and mentally, with little or no life chances. Indeed, these children call to mind the image of a vast pool of scrapped or damaged ‘human material’.  There is also the potential of perpetuating the under-nutrition scenario over successive generations. Do we really expect to see rising out of this, a periodical outpouring of, say, university teachers, scientists, managers, engineers and so on? I may be wide off the mark but, in my view, there is not the faintest chance of such a possibility. To those millions of unfortunate children – including the ones condemned to the scourge of child labour in villages, towns and cities all over the country – life is like rising from the grave every morning.

For lakhs of villagers flooding into cities in search of a better life, the journey  simply marks the jumping over from one threshold of poverty to cross  another. Survival in an Indian city is itself a gruelling task even for people with moderate incomes. It is more so for a poor migrant who arrives with little money and virtually no skill to sell. A tough fibre and motivation, therefore, are not enough to support life there. The law of the city is downright selfishness and insensitivity. Besides, in the given culture of ‘social Darwinism’ and cut-throat competition those who fail are ruthlessly cast aside on the roadside. In fact, the  presence of a family member in the city can be a great help (everyone is not as lucky as Prema) or a chance encounter with a gentle soul who by his/her kindness can take the new arrival under his/her wings. For most, a city turns out to be a laboratory in which countless ‘survival experiments’ fall flat every day and thousands crack under the strains of city-life—sometimes it is the money running short, other times the spirit to fight. Many pack up and return to their roots, dejected and disillusioned.

Those who stay back to fight another day are like what G. B. Shaw described as “a flame that is always burning itself out”.  Lakhs are forced to spend their lives in tiny, one-room tenements in slums and ghettos, huddled almost like animals. As if their cup of woe is not full, in a city like Mumbai, political outfits like the Shiv Sena see them as ‘criminals’, the upper/middle classes as a ‘menace’ (even though they need them as domestic servants) and local bodies as ‘land grabbers/parasites’. In short, life in a city is too hellish for the migrant population there even to physically exist, much less to strive hard and chase their golden dreams.

If the idea of ‘aspirational India’ is to tell the poor that with time and patience (read ‘generations’) they too can become rich – if not fabulously rich – a simple way to test the viability of this idea would be to ask a few thousand children of the rich and powerful to step into this ‘arena’ (that is, to live and work like the poor slum-dwellers) and try to make it big without pulling strings.

The blunt truth is that the ‘aspirational’ idea better fits the youngsters of the well-to-do classes who follow different routes to rise in life than those who are victims of numbing poverty. Let us not paint a romantic picture of the ‘poor India’, the forgotten India.

The news story mentioned above and the various ‘success stories’ endorsing its conclusions also read like an indirect call to the less-privileged of India to plunge into the chaos and cruelties of Indian cities if they want salvation from their miseries and suffering. That seems more like a recipe for disaster than dynamism. For, the cities in India, visibly bursting at their seams with unstoppable migration and their fast depleting capacities to supply essential services, are already heading for suicide. Closer home, this picture in Delhi, the Capital city, is no less grim. It is overrun with critical challenges in water supply, housing, solid waste disposal, increasing crime, aged sewerage, traffic snarls despite a tidal wave of flyovers, murders of senior citizens, illegal construction and land grab, pollution, the shitty Yamuna, lack of schools even for pre-nursery children, and road rage and deaths on roads. Due to overcrowding and congestion the stress levels have lately gone so high that there is now violence at toll plazas, even in residential colonies over parking space.

Lop-sided economic models end up only in lop-sided results – millions with cell-phones but millions without toilets – another global record – forcing people to defecate in open spaces, women being the worst sufferers.

The writer is an author, a management consultant and was on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2013 6:00 PM

    hmmm….set me thinking.

  2. passerby permalink
    March 3, 2013 8:14 AM

    The two truths need not cancel each other. There is enormous poverty and despite that some succeed. We need to reduce the poverty and enable those who suffer from that to overcome the hardships. They need opportunities and incentives and how to provide them is the challenge. For every Prema who succeeds there could be many who should have succeeded had they got the right opportunities and facilities. First generation students and students from poor and socially disadvantaged groups need schemes and incentives so that they get a chance to prove themselves.

  3. March 3, 2013 9:38 PM

    1) Media focuses only on high level corruption, it overlooks the depth and spread of low level corruption in India. The growth in India and disparity is on account of this.
    2) There are a number of NGO’s many actively involved in entrenching (1) above. In the process, the exploding population is is least of their concerns.In fact as it is their ‘raison d’etre’, no one is going to extinguish the very purpose that justifies their existence.
    3) Until there is committed addressing of this population growth (skewed sex ratio too!) by Media and NGO in a dispassionate manner undeterred by any religious, castetist or regional overtones this will involve, all articles on an ‘Aspiring’ or ‘Despairing’ India appear shallow and unfocussed.

  4. Gauri permalink
    March 3, 2013 11:49 PM

    Why is it such a surprise that poor people have access to cell phones but not toilets? Public toilets are supposed to be provided by the government (municipalities). And we all know how bad the government is in providing any kind of service. Cell phones on the other hand can be bought in the market at affordable rates (provided by the private sector). It is hardly a shock that the private sector far outperforms the public sector in India. If we allowed the private sector to build low cost housing or public toilets without putting umpteen hurdles of getting licences we wld have both toilets and cell phones in the country.

  5. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    March 4, 2013 1:07 PM

    Why does one sibling of afamily undergoing the same poverty succeed, while others do not ?

  6. zenedine permalink
    March 4, 2013 2:12 PM

    This is a very written piece that reflects some measure of compassion for others. The issues it raises required urgent thought fifty years ago, now they are become banes and catastrophes – and yet no one seems to care for these grave matters that are to determine the future of our species. The privileged see only what they wish to see – they don’t see the homeless and the hapless, rather they gently berate their precious state for not providing enough public toilets(which it surely does not do)! For sure, there is an aspirational India. It is made up of all the people who value their own creature comforts above the welfare of others. This is an extremely brutish, materialistic India which is upwardly mobile only because it employs fascist methods to crush the common people down.

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